Dr. Sue Sisley speaks at the Las Vegas Medical Marijuana Association lunch on Sept. 23, 2014. (Erik Verduzco, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

UNLV courts well-known marijuana researcher to study PTSD treatment

LAS VEGAS — UNLV’s most impactful recruit this year might be nowhere near the basketball court.

Nevada’s state and federal lawmakers have been working to bring medical marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley to the university to conduct a pilot study on the safety and efficacy of marijuana on veterans with chronic and treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the study would be financially supported by sponsors and not receive any federal money, it has received all the federal approvals, said Sisley, who has been working on securing the study since 2011. She is hoping the university will provide the research space.

“That was a miracle in itself,” said Sisley of the potential early-phase drug development trial. “We had to hurdle four different obstacles to get to a point where we could actually research. It was a big achievement, and we were really close to getting implemented.”

She would study five different strains of marijuana that would be smoked or vaporized and inhaled by 70 veterans. The goal is to develop a marijuana drug in plant form approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It would be the first and only randomized controlled trial in the country looking at marijuana in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Sisley’s desire to study medical marijuana’s impact grew out of her daily physician work with veterans suffering from PTSD at the University of Arizona’s medical school in Phoenix.

The study could be in association with the University of Denver and Johns Hopkins University medical schools through the University of Nevada, Las Vegas psychology department’s community health clinic program.

Campus pot rules

On Sept. 4, regents reaffirmed the Nevada System of Higher Education’s ban on pot use on campus to include medical marijuana.

Marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 drug with no medical benefit, similar to heroin and Ecstasy, making it a federal crime to grow, sell and use. The categorization puts tight restrictions on studying medical marijuana and brings concern that the federal government might pull federal funding from schools involved with pot use and research.

However, the regents left the door open for medical marijuana research at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, based in Reno.

Sisley also met with Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, an outspoken advocate for loosening the federal restrictions for medical marijuana research and business.

“Her credentials are most impressive, and she seems like she would be an asset to have,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Our medical marijuana industry is just taking off; we just got a new (Veterans Affairs) hospital. That’s why I was really interested in her work — because of the PTSD connection.”

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State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said the research is perfect for UNLV despite potential concerns by Nevada regents.

“First off, we’re Nevada, so we’re used to rolling the dice,” Segerblom said. “Secondly, it’s FDA-approved. The marijuana comes from a government farm. You couldn’t have a more federally approved plan than this.

“No one’s going to take (UNLV’s) money away, and this is a golden opportunity to get out of this fear, this fog and move forward,” he added.

Sisley’s sales talk

Sisley promoted her research plan in September during the Las Vegas Medical Marijuana Association luncheon.

Sisley told the audience she was set to do the study at the University of Arizona, where she had been since 2006 as an associate professor of internal medicine and psychiatry at the College of Medicine-Phoenix and Scottsdale. However, she was fired for her vocal stance on medical marijuana research.

According to the New York Times, money from the state’s medical marijuana fees allocated for her study by the Arizona House died when a powerful state senator refused to put the legislation before the Education Committee.

Veterans who had been treated by Sisley called Arizona state Senate leaders expressing concerns leading to allegations that the doctor was “aggressively and inappropriately” behind the veterans’ calls. Three months ago, she received a university letter saying her annual employment contract, which recently expired, would not be renewed.

“I had three different contracts there, and they were stripped from me,” she said of her telemedicine research, assistant professorship and a $300,000 medical marijuana law education grant.

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Although Segerblom contacted Sisley about coming to UNLV earlier this year, the doctor was hoping to remain in Arizona, where she graduated from the University of Arizona and has lived for 30 years.

However, her research proposal was rejected by all the academic institutions and 11 hospitals she approached.

She has been contacted by other states interested in bringing her research there, but she likes the proximity to her home in Phoenix.

She said she is not some pro-marijuana activist looking to fit research to a pre-ordained thesis, but she “desperately hopes” it proves to be helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD.

“I have a healthy skepticism on anything I hear as subjective accounts from patients,” Sisley said. “This randomized control trial would give the whole plant marijuana the opportunity to go through the rigors of serious testing to collect some objective data so we’re just not going off patients’ reports.”

Titus, who taught political science at UNLV for 30 years, said the study could position UNLV as the leading research institution for medical marijuana, attracting more studies and dollars to the university.

The recruitment of Sisley comes as Nevada has received 520 applications for medical marijuana establishments, including dispensaries, cultivation facilities, testing labs and manufacturing of edibles.


Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal